Designer-brand clothing stores are a common sight in countless cities around the world, among them Dubai and Beijing. Whether in the upmarket Mall of the Emirates or on the most exclusive high streets in Beijing, there is no shortage of places to buy high-end trousers, shirts, skirts and blouses, assuming your credit card is up to the task.
Dubai is renowned as a global shopping destination, a place to which people flock for the top labels, especially during its legendary shopping festival, but when it comes to splashing out, analysts believe Beijing is anything but a magnet. Shaun Rein, the managing director of China Market Research Group, says Beijing and for that matter China's other "first-tier" cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou are places from which people escape when they want to go shopping.
Luxury goods bought overseas attract such a social premium in China that residents of the top cities would rather not make their big purchases at home. And that, he says, is posing a big problem for some of the brand names that have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in stores in China. The Chinese spend about US$9 billion (Dh33.05bn) a year on luxury goods but just 40 per cent of that money is being spent on the mainland, he says.
The result is that some internationally prominent brands are "collapsing" on mainland China. "They're trying to target these affluent consumers, but the true rich won't buy on the mainland," he says. "Beijing and Shanghai residents can go overseas easily. There's more cachet [when things are bought overseas]. The big sales are in the second and third-tier cities." Mr Rein says fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren, which plans to open 15 stores a year in Hong Kong and China, should therefore focus not on Beijing and Shanghai but on the smaller, outlying cities, where residents find it harder to obtain visas for foreign travel.
Another key market factor Mr Rein's firm identifies in surveys of thousands of consumers is a huge disparity in spending between younger and older Chinese. The difference relates to what Mr Rein, who outlined his views at a recent presentation in Beijing, describes as "the myth" that Chinese people have high savings rates, with some economists putting the figure at between 30 and 40 per cent of income. Mr Rein believes the savings rate among older Chinese is much higher while for the younger generation it is much lower - in fact zero for many. A quick look at China's 20th-century history explains why.
"If you were born in the 1940s, you have gone through [the Second World War], the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution. You've gone through a lot of turmoil. You're scared. Older consumers are very worried about stability. These people are saving a lot of money," he says. There is, Mr Rein insists, nothing that can be done to change the mindset of that generation. No matter how developed the welfare state and healthcare systems become, he says, this segment of the population will remain highly conservative in its financial habits.
The younger generation's approach to spending and saving is much different, Mr Rein says. He describes this group as being "unbelievably optimistic" and, not having gone through the traumas of their parents' generation, feeling little reason to save for a rainy day. "The secretaries earning $600 a month, these are the ones buying $1,000 Gucci bags or spa packages. It's crazy," he says. In addition, he says, "the people with the money tend to be under the age of 32. The average Mercedes buyer [in China] is 39; in the United States it's 53".
The impulse to spend freely stems from what Mr Rein sees as an unquenchable desire in modern China for bettering oneself. People are either "poor or aspiring rich", with those who have joined the ranks of the middle class seeing that status only as a stepping stone to something better. "Everyone here knows someone who 10 years ago was a peasant farmer and they're now driving a Mercedes," he says. Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor in the school of economics and management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, agrees that those born after 1978, when economic reforms began, have only known "things getting better continually".
"People in China have been shaped by their experience of 30 years of fairly continuous growth, and for anyone who doesn't remember anything other than that, that certainly affects their outlook." He cautions, however, that in rural areas, a numerical imbalance between the sexes has apparently led to young men, who are more numerous, having to save heavily for what in effect are dowries to be able to marry. In such areas, free spending is unlikely to be the order of the day.
Heavy spending among young Chinese "I would suspect is more pronounced among urban people than rural people", he says. The "unbelievable ambition" Mr Rein sees among young Chinese also poses questions for the future. With the number of people graduating from university each year having increased from 1 million little more than a decade ago to about 6 million today, China's young people now expect much more from life. They are unlikely to be satisfied with the type of life led by their parents.
"Every revolution in China, except 1949, was started not by peasants. It's almost always by disenchanted elites - people who went to college and want to achieve their dreams," Mr Rein says. "What's going to happen to them if they can't keep the 20 to 30 per cent salary increases each year?" This ambitious approach to life, and in particular to spending, even extends to those in the provinces who have only just escaped from poverty.
Mr Rein cites an incentive scheme for marketing old-style cathode ray tube TVs that fell flat because even poorer consumers wanted flat-screen monitors. "The peasants said 'we don't want this [rubbish]'," he says. Indeed, it is said that the average plasma TV in China, at 42 inches, is larger than the US average, 37 inches. email@example.com